Nobel

“DOES epidemic disease come from space?” In the relatively sober 1970s, this headline must have been even more alarming than it would be in our present era of fake news. Especially atop an article by famous astronomer Fred Hoyle and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe, arguing that infamous epidemics like the deadly Spanish flu of 1918-19 had been brought to Earth on interplanetary debris. Both authors were proponents of panspermia, the theory that life began elsewhere in the universe and came here aboard comets and meteorites. This belief arguably cost Hoyle a Nobel prize, although perhaps his notorious bluntness, verging on rudeness, may have been a factor too. The article, published in our 17 November 1977 edition, ended with a plea to keep a “continual microbiological vigil of the stratosphere… to eliminate the havoc which will ensue from extraterrestrial invasions in the future”.

By 1992, the declining frequency of Nobel prizes awarded to UK scientists was beginning to trouble us. In our 7 November edition, Ben Martin said this showed the nation’s shrinking status in world science, but conceded that one explanation for the worrying trend might be that “gifted scientists are being encouraged to apply their skills in industry”.

So is research worthwhile only if it turns a profit? Fourteen years later, at least one sector of British science was doing just that. In our 4 November 2006 edition, we sang the praises of biotechnology: the jobs market was booming and half the country’s biotech companies had recently taken on extra staff. A map identified areas of the UK where research and development companies and institutions were gathered, with clusters not surprisingly found around Cambridge and Oxford.

The chair of biotechnology’s UK industry body almost certainly wasn’t being rude when he told us “the UK is bloody good at it”. But that’s not what they hand out Nobel prizes for.

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New Scientist – Earth